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Players who are on the spot for 2017 season

January 2, 2017

As the dominoes of the Hot Stove start to settle, the roster shuffling this winter has started to cast a clearer scope of how teams will stack up in 2017. Under multiple contexts, looks at a congregation of players on the proverbial spot in '17 -- those who will

As the dominoes of the Hot Stove start to settle, the roster shuffling this winter has started to cast a clearer scope of how teams will stack up in 2017. Under multiple contexts, looks at a congregation of players on the proverbial spot in '17 -- those who will face loftier expectations than others based on specific circumstances. The list was portioned into three categories, based on: incumbents whose clubs underwent roster overhauls, those playing for teams on the cusp of contending and those with pricey contracts. Here is a look:
Roster shuffling
Troy Tulowitzki, Blue Jays SS:Josh Donaldson remains, and Toronto signed Kendrys Morales to account for a potential power dip, but Tulowitzki is arguably the third-best bat in their lineup, and his numbers have declined since he was acquired in 2015.
Tulowitzki's strikeout percentage the last two seasons has been the highest since his rookie year, and he's hit just .250 with a .745 OPS in 172 games since he left Colorado, well below his career averages for each. He is projected at 2.9 WAR in '17, eighth-highest among shortstops, which isn't a major uptick from his figures last year.

The AL East has gotten more competitive this offseason, and while the Jays do have strong pitching, their trademark offense could suffer if Tulowitzki doesn't regain at least some of his old form.
Jonathan Lucroy, Rangers C: Lucroy is coming off a career year, and didn't slip when he was traded from Milwaukee. His offensive contributions in just 47 games with Texas ranked among the team's best over the final two months.
The Rangers have lost many offensive contributors, but they could still add another bat. As-is, Lucroy assuredly will move up in the lineup, and be relied on even more for run production.

Whoever closes for the Nats: After the Nationals came away empty-handed in the sweepstakes for bluechip closers -- including Mark Melancon, who they traded for at the non-waiver Trade Deadline last year, Kenley Jansen, Brad Ziegler and Wade Davis -- this club that is on the cusp still hasn't found an answer for the ninth inning.
The remaining free-agent options are limited, and they have yet to make a strike via trade, meaning they may have to look in-house. As's Jamal Collier notes, they have plenty of options that fit the closer mold -- Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Koda Glover -- even if those players lack the experience.
While there isn't a name for this specific list, the importance of whoever fills this role could tilt the hopes of a team that has the remaining roster to be one of the National League's best.
On the spot: Key players for hopeful contenders
Mike Dunn, Rockies reliever: The Rockies, who have had the NL's most productive offense each of the last three seasons, expect to contend next year. Dunn induced grounders on just 27.9 percent of the balls batters put in play against him in '16, among the worst in MLB, which isn't necessarily ideal at Coors Field. But Dunn has averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings over his eight-year career, and been placed on the disabled list just once.
William Fowler, Cardinals CF: Fowler is coming off an incredible 2016, and has since signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Cardinals, who were fifth-worst in the NL with -32.8 defensive runs above average, and third-worst with -10 rARM, which measures outfielders' throwing arms, accounting for the rate at which runners are thrown out attempting to get an extra base.

Fowler showed defensive upside last season, going from a career-worst -20 DRS in 2014 to -12 in '15, to plus-1 in '16, which he credited to playing a few steps deeper. And in putting Fowler in center, the Cards will slide Randal Grichuk to left, where he projects to be a defensive upgrade.
Dallas Keuchel, Astros starter: In acquiring Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick, Houston's offense has potential to be among the AL's best. That leaves a lot hinging on pitching, which took a substantial step back after posting the AL's best ERA in 2015 when Keuchel won the Cy Young Award.
Keuchel was limited with an ailing shoulder in '16, pitching 64 fewer innings than his AL-high 232 the year prior, and saw his ERA raise more than two full runs. With a full offseason to regroup and get healthy, the hard-hurling lefty will headline a staff that, if it plays to its potential, could lead Houston back to the playoffs.

On the spot: Contractual expectations
Jason Heyward, Cubs RF: Heyward won his third straight Gold Glove last year, but his bat was a liability. He had a negative offensive bWAR (-0.3) for the first time, and a career-low .631 OPS, third-worst in the Majors. When he was putting the ball in play, he struggled to reach, finishing with a .266 BABIP, tied for 11th-worst.
Even with Fowler gone, Heyward will be in a crowded throng of talented outfielders, featuring Kyle Schwarber, Benjamin Zobrist, Albert Almora Jr. and free-agent signee Jonathan Jay -- as well as third baseman Kristopher Bryant, who started 48 games in the outfield.
Heyward is hardly the first to struggle under mega-contract expectations, and his woes came in Year One. He's still just 27, and the Cubs believe his upside remains high.
Justin Upton, Tigers LF: Upton, who signed a $132.75 million megadeal last offseason, had one of his worst seasons in 2016, finishing with a .246 average and .775 OPS, with a 28.6 percent strikeout rate, seventh-worst in MLB.
The Tigers, who missed the postseason by 2 1/2 games, were one of just six teams to exceed the luxury tax threshold in '16, and unless they make a significant salary dump via trade, they'll likely go over again, which will yield a 30-percent tax the second time. General manager Al Avila has said he hopes to trim payroll, while still keeping the team competitive. However, dealing Upton could be challenging, as he holds a 20-team no-trade clause, and there are other less-expensive right-handed outfielders available via free agency.
Zack Greinke, D-backs starter: While suffering several injuries last year, Greinke essentially earned $1.3 million per start, as part of the richest contract in history he signed last December. At $34 million per year, he accounted for 34.6 percent of the D-backs' entire payroll last year.
The D-backs reportedly listened to trade offers this summer from the Dodgers -- one of the very few clubs that could take his lofty contract -- yet the earliest they would consider such a move would be next summer, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale.

The NL West has gotten more competitive this winter, with the Rockies now keeping pace with the Giants and Dodgers, who both made the postseason a year ago. If the D-backs plan to contend, it'll hinge on the arm of Greinke.

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.